Almost No One Recycles in Detroit, Despite Curbside Pickup

by | April 22, 2015

By Keith Matheny

On a recent trash-pickup day in her Flanders Street neighborhood on Detroit's east side, Sandra Turner-Handy rolled her blue recyclables container out next to her garbage container.

Hers was the only recyclables container visible on the curbside down the length of her block.

And it's a scene playing out across Detroit. The city's shift to privatized trash pickup last March brought with it -- for the first time -- the opportunity for homeowners citywide to opt in to curbside recyling. But a year later, the recycling program remains largely unused. Only about 10% of residents who could participate have, city officials said.

"A lot of people still don't realize we have curbside recycling available to us now -- I got in an argument about it with another city resident the other day who was convinced it wasn't true," said Turner-Handy, a community outreach director with the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council.

For those who do know about the program, the one-time cost of a $25 container may keep them from participating even if they would otherwise be willing, she said.

"This is a low-income neighborhood," Turner-Handy said. "For a lot of people in this neighborhood, the $25 might be needed to feed their children or pay the bills." The Michigan Environmental Council and Zero Waste Detroit, a collaborative of more than 20 community and environmental organizations, is kicking off today a program to accept contributions to help offset the cost of recycling bins for those city residents who can't afford them.

"That one-time fee can be insurmountable at a particular point in time for people," said Margaret Weber of Zero Waste Detroit, who's coordinated Rosedale Recyclables drop-off point in the city since 1990.

"We don't want it to be a barrier."

DPW Director Ron Brundidge said the city's decision to require residents to opt into curbside recycling is not the main factor in low participation. He noted that during the city's four-year pilot program, where all residents in pilot areas received recycling bins, participation rates rarely exceeded 20%. Some used the bin as a second garbage container, contaminating recyclables, he said. The amount the city pays its private contracted waste-haulers, Rizzo Environmental Services and Advanced Disposal, for recycling is tied to the number of participating households, Brundidge added.

"We wanted to make certain that containers were being delivered to households that were committed to recycling," he said. "We did not want to pay contractors for services they were not providing as a result of citizens not using provided containers."

Even with low participation rates, the year-old program has resulted in a 10% increase in recycling volumes and weights over the past practice of residents needing to take recyclables to designated drop-off locations. The city is "fully supportive" of assistance to residents with the $25 recycling cart fee, Brundidge said.

"However, it is important to convey that the recycling containers are to be used and used correctly," he said, adding the city will be working with groups such as Zero Waste Detroit on short training workshops for residents prior to their receipt of vouchers for free recycling containers.

In addition to less waste being burned at the city's waste incinerator or going to landfills, recycling dramatically transforms the amount of garbage generated in the home, Turner-Handy said.

"Having recycling has reduced my trash by about 50%," she said. "My trash cart used to be overflowing with the top flipped open."

Curbside recycling is another aspect of cleaner living that's new to Detroit but that other communities take for granted, Zero Waste Detroit Community Outreach Coordinator Ahmina Maxey said. It goes hand-in-hand with efforts to increase and improve public transportation and to add more greenways throughout the city, she said.

"But it all hinges on people knowing about it, and having access to the carts," she said.

(c)2015 the Detroit Free Press